Death's darts e'en flying feet o'ertake
The sound of leaves rustling in the wind, the smell of ash and smoke and chakra flavoring the air, the heat pressing against her body like a second skin; Tenten breathed in deeply and smiled softly. Even the hot burn of the air in her nose was welcome and cherished; only in Konoha, she thought fondly, and stepped off the branch and into empty space.
Like a cat leaping down from a fence, she landed with an easy grace, every move neat and economical. Her standard issue uniform was dusty and creased from days of travel, her vest covered in dried oil and smelled vaguely of dried blood; catching sight of the tall wooden gates she hadn't seen in a little over two years, Tenten's breath caught in her throat and she tugged at the hem of her shirt a little self-consciously. Two years and four months away from Konoha and she came home looking like something Jiang used to fish out of the garbage cans in the alley behind her apartment. What had been her apartment, she corrected herself, the familiar twinge of pain plucking at her chest.
Pushing a tiny burst of chakra in her feet, Tenten flickered across the dirt roach and stopped abruptly before the outpost, slapping a scroll she had just palmed down on the dusty wooden desk before her. Pale brown eyes squinted at her inquisitively and Tenten felt a little disoriented by those big eyes and the hitae-ate framing them; there was something about them that made her uncomfortable and a little…sad. Bewildered, she cleared her throat and stated clearly, "012573, Sato Tenten."
"Sato, Sato, Sato…" the slight figure manning the over-glorified guard-post muttered under his breath as his quick fingers thumbed through the pages of the large registry. "Ah, I'm sorry, but there seems to be no record of—"
Tenten cut him off impatiently with a swift cut of her hand. "I'm not under the general active list. Check the off-duty roster, under section 5 if I remember correctly." Chuunin these days, Tenten thought critically, watching the boy scramble around the little wooden shack for a different book; a dusky pink crept up his cheeks and towards his ears, turning him the color of a particularly ripe strawberry. He was acting like an untested genin who had just—
"Aha!" the boy exclaimed excitedly. "012573…" He licked a finger and traced the short column of numbers down until he hit her name, squinting a little at the tiny faded letters. "Sato, Tenten. Jou- jounin."
She nodded curtly in approval and waved a hand at the scroll she had given over. "My travel visa. I trust it'll be taken care of…?"
"Yes of course, Sato-san—"
Her hands gathered in the traditional seal, Tenten caught one last sight of those brown eyes and again, she felt that strange sorrow gather up in the center of her chest. His eyes, they looked so…she struggled to find the right word, tried to find a way to name that sudden, strange pain. And she realized, right when the chakra-leaves swirled around her feet and swept her away, that they reminded her of her own eyes. Before the war.
"But, Lee-sensei, we're so tired—"
"Five more laps! You should make use of your Youth while you can and train harder, so you can become—"
Lee beamed at his students, flashing his beloved Genin what they had termed, Nice Guy Pose #56. "Teamwork! I am impressed at your growing unity! Alright—you can break for lunch fifteen minutes ear—"
He was quickly drowned out by the delighted shrieks of his little demon-children; plumes of dust rose from the ground where his three wayward students had been standing only moments before. Lee laughed, amused, and followed the sound of growling stomachs and loud bickering to the wooden table standing in the far side of the meadow.
"Keiko-chan," he called out reprovingly and the tiny black-haired menace that had been pulling her taller teammate's hair subsided reluctantly. "He started it," she muttered rebelliously but acquiesced when Ryuu (the other boy who had been watching on in quiet amusement) passed her a black-lacquered bento box.
"I'll get you for that, you little witch," Ichirou muttered, but with no real heat, and dug eagerly into his own lunch. The three had long fallen into the familiar habit of hair-pulling, name-calling and long-suffering patience, a script they had written over the past year with the occasional help from their over-bearing and sparkling green sensei. Lee would have been more alarmed if Keiko and Ichirou had not been bickering or if Ryuu had opened his mouth for anything besides breathing or eating.
"Like you have the ba—" Keiko stopped and scrunched her nose in frustration. "The—the brains to do anything." She breathed a quiet sigh of relief, glad that she had not slipped and earned another lecture from Lee-sensei on what was 'appropriate' language for genin. Lee hid a smile and pulled out a couple of bars from a vest pocket, casually tossing it at each of his three students. "Eat up," he urged, "you need food to train in the Spring of Your Youth!"
"Candy!" Ichirou and Keiko chorused greedily, eagerly tearing through the wrappers only to find gray lumps of matter staring right back at them. "This isn't candy," Ichirou whispered in horrified shock.
"Of course it isn't!" Lee boomed proudly. "Energy bars, to keep up your strength and fuel your training—"
A gray block of something soared through the air and landed with perfect accuracy in a bird's nest tucked on a tree branch high above the table. A flock of birds squawked in fear and fluttered out of the tree, wheeling around the crown in an excited frenzy, filling the air with their harsh caws.
"Well," Lee said slowly and thoughtfully. "You have very good aim, Keiko-chan."
"That one looks like Jiang-kun," Ichirou commented lazily, pointing at a gray lumpy sort of cloud on the far left of the sky.
"No," Keiko decided firmly, "It looks like your fat stupid head." Ichirou chewed on his grass-stalk a little more before snapping back easily, "How could it look like my head when it looks like your big butt?"
"I DO NOT HAVE A BIG BUTT—"
"That one looks like Lee-sensei's scar."
Ichirou and Keiko shot disbelieving looks at their quiet teammate, who often went entire days or weeks without saying anything.
"His scar?" they echoed.
"Aa," Ryuu confirmed, his pewter gray eyes wide and thoughtful. "The one on the bottom of his jaw."
"No way," Keiko mused, tangling her fingers in her short dark hair. "They're like lines not…" She squinted a little more at the cloud that Ryuu had pointed out, suddenly unsure.
"It does look sort of like it," Ichirou said diplomatically. "They have that blotchy stretchy old look."
"Huh," was Keiko's eloquent response.
"I wonder how he got it?"
Ryuu glanced at Ichiriou curiously, cocking his head like a bird that knew something interesting was happening. "Probably fighting a hundred missing-nin on an S-rank mission," Keiko said bloodthirstily, her eyes shining with the idea of all those corpses littering the battlefield.
"Or maybe his ex-girlfriend threw a billion kunai at him because she was secretly an evil spy from another village and—"
"No, he was fighting an entire village of ZOMBIES!"
"No—no, he was on the secret mission to find the greatest ninjutsu scroll of all time when—"
"You're early for training! EXCELLENT!" came Lee-sensei's loud and enthusiastic voice and the arguing pair suddenly blanched at his intrusion.
"Get up, get up! We need to start warming up and begin taijutsu practice! The Springtime of Youth waits for no—"
Lee did a quick double take and his eyebrows rose as he traced the voice back to the tallest and quietest student on his team: Ryuu.
"What is it, Ryuu-kun?" he asked encouragingly, rubbing his bandaged fingers together.
"Would it be inappropriate for—"
Lee waved Ryuu's concerns aside with an eager hand. "I'm your sensei," he said warmly. "You can ask me anything."
"Your scar. Did you—where did you…" Ryuu's voice trailed off, having exhausted his quota of words for the week. He blinked expectantly, short brown hair fluttering in the breeze. Ichirou and Keiko were uncharacteristically quiet, waiting for what they assumed would be the answer to their earlier argument.
Of all the questions Lee had expected Ryuu to ask, this was not one of them. One of his hands rose reflexively to touch the two jagged scars that ran from the corner of his mouth and his chin and ended right underneath his ear, parallel to his jaw. They were old and pink, the scar tissue long healed over in the years since the war.
"You know about the Fourth Shinobi Secret War?" he asked distantly, his hand still tracing the scars that were etched onto his skin. Even Sakura-san, with all her power and skill, could not heal these scars over. There were lots of things, he had realized over the years of the war, that she could not heal. All three of his student nodded slowly, comprehension slowly dawning on their faces.
"I was part of a specialized combat team—my—my genin team. We were skilled in combating the enemy from all ranges and as such we were sent to the front lines almost immediately." Lee fell silent, his eyes looking far off into the distance, as if he were gazing back in time and through the years to another age. A long, heavy silence settled uncomfortably over the trio and Keiko finally drew up the courage to break it with a quiet, "Did you get hurt during the war?" Lee suddenly snapped back to the present and looked upon the solemn grave faces of his students, his heart aching with an emotion he couldn't quite name.
"You could say that," he said gently. Keiko's fierce eyes, Ichirou's crooked smile, Ryuu's brow stitched together in concentration; his team, his family, his everything. Only now, years after Gai-sensei had passed away, years after his own genin team had scattered to the four winds of the earth, did Lee understand what Gai-sensei had given each and every one of his students.
The magnitude of the gift staggered him and Lee felt the familiar pain forming in the center of his chest; he balled his hands into tight fists and blinked the tears away. He had a duty now, to pass on what Gai-sensei had given him, to guide and cherish and protect the future he had been entrusted with.
To love them, just as Gai-sensei had loved him.
"Fifteen laps around Konoha! WHO'S WITH ME?" His students fell eagerly into their old routine, Keiko and Ichirou taking the lead and Ryuu following up with a long-suffering look. Their sad looks had disappeared, leaving only bright eyes and loud voices behind; Lee preferred it that way. They would be his genin for a few more years yet…a few more years of laughter and innocence…a few more years to love them still.
The cup of tea was warm against her fingers, cradled in the palm of her gloved hands. The aroma of Yin Junmei black tea curled into tiny flickers of steam and if she looked hard enough, Tenten could almost see little flickers of creatures moving too fast for the naked eye to see.
"I haven't had tea like this in almost—oh almost fifteen years," Liu Jia sighed contentedly, the corners of her eyes crinkling in pleasure. "And with my bao-bao home, everything is as it should be."
"Māma," Tenten flushed, avoiding her mother's sharp eyes, her fingertips idly drumming a rat-tat-tat on the porcelain teacup. Looking at her mother directly was—odd, to say the least. She had streaks of gray in her hair now, more laugh lines and worry lines carved onto her forehead, the skin on the backs of her hands spotted and wrinkled with age. Tenten found, much to her dismay and sorrow that her mother had grown older while she was away.
"Two years away- no almost three years and all you have to say to your mother is māma!" Jia teased lightly, reaching out with a gentle hand and cupping her daughter's face.
"Two years and four months," Tenten defended, but leaned into her mother's touch. Here, in the small ordinary civilian flat that Jia had moved into only a few years before, Tenten finally relaxed, slowly letting her guard down.
"So it is," Jia agreed amiably. "And what a long two years and four months it has been! So many things I have gathered over the years to tell you but when I finally see you, all I can do is speak about tea!"
"Very good tea," her daughter grinned impishly. "After all, I brought it directly from Tea Country myself."
Jia's eyes flickered briefly with something Tenten couldn't quite catch, before resolving into a quiet pride.
"Is it…" Jia began slowly, as if tasting the words in her mouth and finding them unsuitable. She settled for, "What did you think?"
"It was—it was different," Tenten mused. "Similar enough in some ways but so different in others. The customs, the people, the language— Do you miss it there, Māma?" she asked abruptly, her eyes unreadable.
"Some days," her mother sighed. "When the wind blows a certain way or when I hear the cry of the nightingale and think of the days of my childhood…"
"You could go back—you could—" Tenten bit the bottom of her lip, her fingers tightening around the teacup. "I could help you go back. Back to Tea Country."
Jia smiled sadly and reached over and tucked a strand of hair behind Tenten's ear, something she had used to do when Tenten was a child small enough to sit on her lap. Her daughter had not been so small for many years now and she missed that small child sometimes, the little girl who had begged for her first set of kunai, her little baby with Takeshi's wide brown eyes and chubby little fingers. The woman who sat before her now, with those old eyes and calloused fingers, who had stopped wearing her hair in a little's girls buns many years before and now was tied in a utilitarian ponytail, who had fought and killed and spilled her blood, who had loved and lost—Jia blinked back tears and drew her hand back to her lap. My baby, she thought with a strange mixture of sorrow and pride, is all grown up.
"My home is here now," she said gently. "My home is here in Konoha. I left for Takeshi but I stayed for you, my precious treasure, my bao-bao."
"Yamanaka Ino, you know her? She sold the flower shop, said she wanted to—" Jia furrowed her brow and leaned in closer, as if the news were S-Rank information. "—to go back to active duty. Word says she might be going back to—" Here, Jia looked around furtively and then continued softly, "—to ANBU."
Tenten hid an amused laugh and quirked a brow. "Oh, really?"
"Really," Jia affirmed. "After her mother, Hanako-san—she fell ill a little over a year ago and with Inoichi-san gone, Ino had to take over the shop. A very nice girl, a little…exuberant for my tastes though," she finished tactfully. This was news to Tenten.
"Hanako-san is sick?"
"A stroke," Jia shook her head sadly. "After—after well…after Inoichi-san passed during the war, Hanako-san…"
Three years since the war had ended and still, still it managed to spread it vicious little claws everywhere and slowly drag people under. Tenten bit down a snarl and forced herself to breathe in slowly. She had worked with Yamanaka-san closely during the earlier years of the war but had only heard about his horrific death at the hands of some Kumo-nin when she had returned from the front lines to recover. Mutilated and apparently crucified on a tree as an example when he had refused to break under torture. Tenten had thrown up when she saw the photos the Kumo-nin had sent along as a lovely little Christmas gift the year before the war ended. Tenten would bet her entire savings account that those photos had a hand in Hanako's sudden decline in health. Breathing in deeply, Tenten forced herself to listen to her mother's pleasant chatter, the words washing over her like a gentle wave.
"…and Ryuu-chan, the boy the next apartment over, what a lovely child! He's the one taking care of Jiang, you know. He does his parents proud with his work as a genin now…and the Rokudaime shot up another few inches, did you know that? Still growing! Proof of a man's strength is his height, my own mother said and look at him!...Kokoro-san, you know him, the grocer on Maple and Vine? His daughter…And…by the way, did you know that Lee-kun is Ryuu-chan's jounin-sensei! Lee-kun! Our Lee! That's all his mother talks about now you know…"
Tenten's ears pricked up at the mention of a name she hadn't heard spoken aloud in almost two years.
"Lee," she said slowly in disbelief. "A Jounin-sensei?"
Jia nodded vigorously. "About six months ago, he passed his first team and I've heard that they're one of the best teams around! Of course, it's Lee-kun's team, so it must be the best," Jia said loyally, her eyes twinkling with mirth.
"Huh," Tenten digested. Oddly enough, the idea of Lee being a teacher didn't seem so crazy. In fact, it almost seemed…normal. She could almost see him now in that green spandex outfit and his orange legwarmers, striking his Nice Guy Pose and shouting about the Springtime of Youth! just like…just like… Tenten skittered away from the thought, refusing to follow that thought to its natural conclusion.
"Speaking of Lee's job…bao-bao, are you staying this time?" Jia asked meaningfully, her eyes flicking at the teacup in front of her and then back at her daughter's face. Tenten's face smoothed into an unreadable mask and picked up her cup delicately.
"A lot of it's classified information," she said calmly, turning the tea round and round and round in her hands. Her years abroad in Tea had taught her much more than the different varieties of tea and their meanings.
"I should hope that you can at least tell me something so I know whether or not to at least prepare you a meal. You didn't even send me word that you were coming!"
"Māma," Tenten said exasperatedly, her cool mask slipping in front of her mother. "You know I can't tell you much. I don't even know how long I'll be staying. The Hokage calls and his ninja listen." Tenten shrugged lopsidedly and pointedly drank her tea.
"So you're still working?"
"Being the Assistant Ambassador is a great honor." Jia heard the unspoken words and acquiesced, sighing a little in regret.
"Then send your poor mother some letters! I'm lucky if I get anything more than a note every six months."
Tenten smiled sheepishly and set her cup of tea down, reaching out for her mother's hand. "I'll try to be better about it." Jia smiled gently and squeezed her daughter's hand. "Thank you, bao-bao. I know you will."
Your presence is required at the Hokage Tower at 0900 hours on 06-26.
Hyuuga Neji folded up the missive with slender fingers, watching the hawk fly away into the morning sky, wings beating slowly and majestically. No sooner had he left the Corps did missions come flying at him with regularity, though none so as brief and abrupt as this one. He tucked the folded piece of paper into a sleeve and turned towards the main compound, leaving the beautiful bright day behind. If his suspicions were correct, he would need to inform Hiashi-sama about an extended mission leave.
Neji inclined his head at Hinata, who was waving gently near the sliding doors. Her silky bluish-black hair gleamed in the sunlight, a faint halo of light circling the crown of her head like a circlet of jewels.
"Hinata-sama," he responded quietly, his eyes tracing the delicate embroidery lining the edge of her sleeves, avoiding the black band of cloth that was wrapped around her eyes. It set his teeth on edge every time he looked at them; a double reminder of his failure and his doom. "Would you be so kind as to inform Hiashi-sama that I will be unable to attend the morning training session with the under-twelves."
"Aa," she responded softly. "Of course. Will you be back for lunch?"
"Unlikely. But thank you anyway." Hinata nodded, a soft smile tugging at her lips and she disappeared behind the sliding door, leaving Neji alone with his regrets and a piece of paper that seemed to weigh more than it should.
When she caught sight of a green flak jacket, bowl cut hair, and green spandex, Tenten barely stopped herself from gasping aloud. Gai-sensei, she thought for one disorienting moment before the figure turned around and instead Lee's bright face beamed at her.
"Good morning—" Lee stopped and his wide eyes widened even more, his eyebrows threatening to merge with his hairline. "Tenten."
Only years of training and experience as Konohagakure's Assistant Ambassador kept Tenten's jaw from hitting the worn wooden floor. In a tightly controlled voice, she said, "Hello, Lee-san. Neji-san," she added, catching sight of the Hyuuga standing at attention next to Lee, his face as pale and unreadable as ever. For the first time in three years, what was left of Team Gai stood together in the Hokage's Office.
"Hokage-sama," she bowed formally. "My apologies for my tardiness. There is no—"
"Maa, maa, Tenten-chan," Naruto interrupted her cheerily behind the mountainous desk, waving a clawed hand around carelessly. "We're all friends here, eh? No need to be all formal and stuff."
"Of course, Hokage-sama."
Naruto pouted a little at her formality but grinned to see the collection of ninja before him, standing as tall and proud as the day he had first been inducted as the Rokudaime Hokage a little over three years ago.
"It's good to see you all again," he said affectionately. "Not you, Neji," he winked conspiratorially. "I've seen too much of you the past three years." Neji inclined his head, acknowledging Naruto's remark, but otherwise remaining silent.
"And Gejimayu! How's your team doing? Er…it's Ryuu-kun, Keiko-chan and Ichirou-kun, right? I should take you guys out to ramen sometime, to congratulate you on your mission record! A hundred percent completion rate!" Lee relaxed visibly at Naruto's boisterous words and accepted the praise with a proud nod of his head.
"My students would be proud to learn from such a Youthful and Dynamic figure such as yourself, Hokage-sama."
"Heh, they'd better be," Naruto chuckled, rifling through his desk for something or another. "Damned paperwork. I'm going to die from it, it's disgusting. Huh, no wonder Tsuande-no-baachan was so quick to shove the hat on me… Aha!" He held up a stack of scrolls and a sheaf papers he had fished from the bottom of the mountain range of paperwork that currently sat immobile on his desk. Carelessly tossing it over to Neji (who caught it instinctively), he sat back in his chair with a sigh of relief.
"Tenten-chan. I know you're wondering why we called you back from your posting so soon—three years ahead of schedule, eh?" The entire time, Tenten had been standing rigidly, her hands clenched into tight, tense fists. She had fought to ignore the soft chakra presences humming right next to her that were as familiar as her own, and had tried to focus, in vain, on the grain of the wooden floor underneath her sandals. At Naruto's question she jerked her gaze from the ground and towards his piercing blue eyes.
"Your will is my command, Hokage-sama," she stated coolly, projecting every scrap of calm she had into her voice.
"Heh, s'no wonder you're doing so well in Tea. Kentaro made a regular diplomat out of you, didn't he?"
"He has been an excellent…mentor." A flash of green and a gleaming smile flashed unbidden to the forefront of her mind and a bright, "Yosh, Tenten!" Strangely, her eyes threatened to burn a little at the thought of…of…Tenten wrenched her mind away from that topic and again tried to focus on the man before her. Naruto's bright eyes missed nothing as he gave her a long look she could barely decipher.
"I bet. Anyway, your last reports along with some uh…other information we've been gathering, well…Let me start at the beginning. It'll be easier." Directing his gaze at all three of them now, Naruto laced his fingers together, the claws at his fingertips glinting faintly in the morning light. "Two years back we sent Tenten off to Tea under the official role as Assistant Ambassador to uh facil- facil-whatever—to help Tea and Fire Country out, especially cause Tea doesn't have its own Hidden Village and relies on Konoha a lot. But Tenten, you were also there to gather information, especially on what Tea Country exports."
"Opium," Tenten filled in grimly. Naruto nodded gravely in agreement, the motion at odds with his bright yellow hair and normally cheery blue eyes. "Drug cartels –criminal organizations that control the opium trade—have been popping up all over the border between Tea and Fire right now. They're causing trouble, desecrating villages, crops, demanding protection prices from Fire and Tea villagers. It's a mess," Naruto finished bluntly. "The Fire Daimyo has asked us himself to personally deal with them so I want to send you three out. You lot are my best.
"I mean it," he emphasized, when he saw Lee about to protest their status. "You guys were one of our biggest aces during the war and you're even better now. We need your—" he nodded at Tenten here, "—expertise in Tea and experience as an Intel op and your—" here he nodded at Neji, "—eyes and your taijutsu, Lee, to get this team home in case it goes FUBAR.
"I can't make you accept this but—"
"Don't be ridiculous, Hokage-sama." Neji's quiet arrogance made the title seem like an insult. How very Hyuuga of him, Naruto grumbled internally. "I can't speak for anyone else here, but I willingly accept."
Lee flinched imperceptibly at Neji's words and wondered a little sadly at how the strongest and most united team in Konoha had been reduced to this. Three Jounin who had stopped speaking to each other when the war had ended. "I accept as well, Hokage-sama. How can I refuse when the success of this mission would aid so many?" Lee gave Naruto a thumbs-up and a sparkling smile, taking care not to show anything but pride and excitement. His own inner conflict, he would work out later. With lots of punching dummies and trees to pummel.
"And you, Tenten?" Naruto asked gently.
Tenten gave him a small smile in response and saluted, fist over heart, like a proper Konoha jounin. "I would be honored to serve, Hokage-sama."
"Good," he approved. "I knew I could count on you guys! You'll be going under an official mission dispatched by the minor lord controlling Tianjin Port. He requires bodyguards to protect him while he holds the trade negotiations and this'll provide you with some official cover while you investigate. Neji, you have the mission parameters but I want to make this clear now: I can't afford to lose a single one of you. You're the best in the village and you better come back alive or I'll assign you all D-Rank missions for the next year." All three blinked a little at the incongruous threat.
"Great!" Naruto beamed. "I expect you back in a couple of months, then. Dismissed!"